London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

😀 😀 😀 😀

From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “London Fog by Christine L Corton

  1. Okay, The Thames and Waterloo Bridge are beautiful!!! Wow. I would hang those up. Somewhere close, for sure.

    And I actually read that part in Bleak House! *proud/victory face*

    So, I wouldn’t want to walk through that fog either alone. I’d have to take my short sword, I’m thinking. Or a buzzy thing.

    • Aren’t they gorgeous? There were loads of brilliant paintings in the book – I love these sort of impressionistic swirly things!

      I am very, very, very, very proud! So proud I won’t even mention it’s on page 1…

      You have trained warrior bees?!? But how would you know who was friend or foe?

      • Me too! Is it watercolor or something? I think we should stop painting walls and just put up huge paintings like that, the sudden.

        *laughing* It is? I won’t let you spoil this moment for me!

        It doesn’t matter. Zap first, ask later. Like twizzlers.

        • I think they’re oil paintings, but I seriously know almost zero about painting, so I could easily be wrong. Yes! Or tapestries – I’ve always quite fancied having tapestries on my walls.

          *laughing too* I’m sorry – you’re right! It is something to be truly proud of – bask in your glory! If you read it at a page every two years, you’ll be finished by the time you’re 1684…

          Twizzlers? I have no idea what they might be but they sound adorable!

    • The stuff about art and literature was really good, and would have been enough to fill a book without the political stuff – I reckon it’d be worth reading and just skipping those bits. Great illustrations too.

    • There were loads of cartoons from Punch and other magazines amongst the illustrations – they really added to it. In fact, the book is almost worth it just for the illustrations alone.

  2. I love that opening to Bleak House. It’s such a fantastic bit of scene setting. Another book with great descriptions of fog is crime writer Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke. A killer loose in the London fog – it’s terrifying and one of her best.

    • Well, I consider Bleak House to be the greatest book ever written, so no argument from me! I think she may have mentioned Tiger in the Smoke – I started out making a list of all the books she mentioned but there were way too many of them. I shall look out for that one – I’m on a bit of a classic crime kick at the moment… 🙂

    • Yes, it’s one of the main reasons I don’t read much literary criticism – I always end up arguing with it! Absolutely! I must admit the statistics on numbers of people whose deaths were probably casued by the fogs were shocking – I really hadn’t realised it was so lethal.

  3. I’ve always thought that a legendary London pea-souper to be such a fabulous context and setting for a good, tense story. So atmospheric! And you’re right that so many authors and artists have made use of it. Dickens comes particularly to mind, but he’s of course not the only one by a long shot. I can see how a book like that would be really interesting in some places, and, well, better used as a reference book in others. Still, it sounds like it’s worth the read, FictionFan.

    • I kinda regret that I never actually got to see one of the bad fogs – though I’m sure they weren’t at all fun for the people who had to live with them. But the art in particular and later photography really brought home that the descriptions in books are in no way exaggerated, and you can see why it ties in so well with crime fiction especially. Yes, the stuff about art and literature was well worth reading and it’s full of great illustrations, and the way the chapters are laid out would make it quite easy to skip the political stuff…

  4. I am, but you aren’t, old enough to remember pre-smokeless Glasgow. I once got off the bus two stops early and walked straight into a lamppost, giving myself the “keeker” of a lifetime. You literally had to feel your way along walls/hedges and crossing the road was done by ear. Very scary!

    • It must have been the big thing when I was about two or three because the introduction of ‘smokeless zones’ is one of my earliest memories. I don’t know what I thought it meant but I remember having a recurring nightmare for a while about it – in my nightmare it was more like a whirlwind where everything got swept up the chimney and sucked away. Including my favourite sponge, which was the really scary bit. Do you think I was an odd child? 😉

  5. Fascinating review! I was inspired by your currently reading list a little while ago to read this one, too. I agree with you that the political side was not as interesting and I particularly enjoyed her discussion of how fog was used in literature and art. Oddly enough, I’m actually reviewing a movie today that I was somewhat inspired to watch because of the book.

    • Oh good – I’m glad you enjoyed it too! Yes, the stuff about art particularly intrigued me – I guess I was already aware of the impact it had had on literature to a degree, but I had no idea that so many painters had been inspired by it. And though there wasn’t so much of it, I found the stuff about cinema really interesting too. I shall look forward to your review – I’ve ended up adding The Lodger, book and movie, to my own list as a result of reading this…

  6. This is fascinating! Since I got my first London Fog coat, I’ve always wondered about this fog! I remember asking my mom about it as a kid. I picture it equivalent to living in a ghost story. It would have driven me mad, I’m afraid. I grew up seeing all around me for hundreds of miles. When I moved to New York, it took me years to not feel claustrophobic, and that was just from the trees.

    So after the 1950’s, no more fog? Or just not the pea-soup kind? (I feel like a student raising my hand.)

    • It was only when I started looking up this book online that I discovered there is a brand called London Fog – it doesn’t seem to have crossed over here, or else I’ve missed it! Yes, London is so crowded already – especially the older parts with narrow roads and alleys everywhere – that it must have been incredibly spooky. And I always find the fog muffles and distorts sound too which is even more disorienting. London does still get fogs, but they’re more like thick mist now – white and mostly water vapour and not usually so long-lasting. And we’re the same up here – I’m just too young to remember the real fogs, though (see above) my sister does. But I used to have a long commute through the Fenwick Moor which is notorious for thick fogs and they were terrifying to drive through. Sometimes I used to have to give up and park, and wait for it to lift a bit… scary.

  7. Fascinating, as usual, FF! This sounds like the ideal reference for someone writing in this period (I don’t, but in case I ever try, I’ll remember what you said!) Happy weekend to you — tuck in and avoid the chill!!

  8. Wow, this book sounds really interesting, particularly its depiction in art and literature. I’d never considered that the fog might allow women greater freedom as it gave them invisibility. We’ve had weeks of relentless mist and fog (not to mention the rain) here in West Wales and I’ve been amazed at how claustrophobic it has made me and others feel. That sense that your world has been drastically reduced is really disconcerting. I can’t help wondering of the effects of the prolonged, dense London fog on the psychological health of the population.

    • I loved the stuff about art especially – I had no idea so many painters had been inspired by it and the illustrations are great. She quoted from loads of books and authors and it was fascinating to see all the different ways they’d used the fog, especially when it came to women. Apparently it was thought that constant fog was linked to the people of London becoming morally degenerate, so be careful! 😉 But again, yes it was interesting to hear about the way it affected people mentally as well as physically. It’s the way fog seems to deaden sound as well as sight that makes it so disorienting, I think…

  9. I remember my Grandmother telling me about the fog – she was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and trying to explain how the best way to find her way to work in central London was to count her steps, since then I’ve always noticed when it comes up in literature – and true crime, particularly in the Victorian era.

    • I kinda regret never actually seeing a real ‘pea-souper’ – terrifying, I’d imagine, especially at night, but it must have been dramatic too. Apparently people really did walk straight into the Thames because they couldn’t see it – and I’d never thought about the fact that the cab-horses had difficulty seeing too, so there were all kinds of accidents because of that as well. You can see why so many authors used it as a cover for crime…

    • I’ve only seen one other review so far and it was pretty positive too. The stuff about the art was what I appreciated most, I think – I already had a good idea about the way it was used in literature but hadn’t realised so many artists had become kinda obsessed by it…

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